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Rekindling Boot Camp Memories : Recollections: A return visit to boot camp sparks vivid flashbacks. It also shows that things don't change much in the military.

November 23, 1989|JAMES KINDALL | NEWSDAY

FT. LEONARD WOOD, Missouri — Ft. Leonard Wood, a military base planted deep in the stubby hills of southern Missouri, was established as a basic training center in 1940. Camp "Lost in the Woods," as residents call it, occupies 63,000 acres of forest and includes a desolate encampment of buildings sprinkled upon vast marching fields of dirt and concrete.

One sunny autumn day, I climbed the steps of a chartered Greyhound, waved weakly at my parents and girlfriend through the window, and began a journey toward Ft. Wood and the anachronistic rite of manhood known as "basic training."

Nothing before or since has been like it.

The time was 1969. Twenty years ago this fall. And I had just been drafted.

Six-thirty on a velvet morning. Life is about to change for the shivering recruits of the Delta Company who are lined up outside the Ft. Leonard Wood processing center. Yelling out their assigned numbers to a scowling sergeant with a clipboard, the recruits blink as they enter an auditorium washed in light and trot to wooden benches.

The sergeant spots a dawdler.

"You people better get some fire in your moves or it's gonna be a loooooong day!" he shouts.

Actually, days weren't particularly long when, as an unaware 22-year-old from a small Midwestern town, I entered the Army at the behest of my draft board. The remaining eight weeks were filled with dehumanizing abuse, fear, depression, flashes of elation and brief moments of glory.

When it was over, I discovered I had been transformed from an individual into just one more segment on a gigantic, green centipede. Later, I would be trained in aerial reconnaissance and sent not to the crucible of Vietnam, but to a peaceful intelligence unit in Munich, West Germany.

The need to sample the modern Army's version of basic training was more than mild curiosity. But exactly what the pull was, I didn't really know.

Passing the strip malls filled with tattoo parlors and pawnshops on the way into camp, I was dumbfounded to feel again the dreary loneliness that permeated the grounds during my time there. Nowhere had the absence from things familiar been so visceral as in this alien landscape. The ache was constant.

Some of this feeling can be seen in the faces of the youngsters this morning, but mostly there is the fear. Neither years nor the volunteer army have changed the rituals of "basic" it seems. Intimidation is still the preferred method of crowd control.

The recruits' fate is quickly outlined. All remnants of civilian life will be packed away.

A new soldier's first trip to the barbershop, especially in 1969, was a delight for the veterans who were watching. The longhairs were shorn like sheep.

"Want to keep your sideburns?" the barber would ask. "Sure," the unwary recruit would reply.

Zip. Zip.

Two lumps of hair would be thrust in his face.

"Well, here they are," the barber would say with a howl of laughter.

Those of us awaiting our own humiliation laughed just as loudly. This was one of the first lessons of basic training. Weakness and pain revealed before large groups was not something you sympathized with: It was something you laughed at.

In seconds, a golden-haired Bon Jovi becomes Ivan Lendl. Those in line roll their eyes as they watch.

In the next room, each trainee is handed a duffel bag and told to strip to his shorts. An older man tiredly calls out body sizes, then flings pairs of sturdy green socks and mud-colored T-shirts through the air at raised hands.

Afterward they file past a counter, where they are tossed fatigues, fitted with caps and stuffed into new boots. Their names will be printed on tags and sewn into their clothing. The scene brings back my own clothing issue, the sergeant explaining that we would be given blank name tags upon which we would print our names.

"And make sure it's eligible," he barked.

It was a heady time back then. Neil Armstrong had just pounced on the powdery surface of the moon. Woodstock evaporated peacefully, and actress Sharon Tate died brutally. President Nixon withdrew 25,000 soldiers from Vietnam and described it as a "significant step forward" toward peace.

Draft by lottery number began soon after my selection. Conscription, the process that had provided millions of men for World Wars I and II, was abandoned for the all-volunteer concept in 1973. Most who sign up now do so for careers or educational benefits, they say.

"I won't knock them for that," says Sgt. Thomas Jones, a "D.I.," or drill instructor. "It's the smartest way to get college money."

Clomping into the infirmary, today's troops form a line that passes slowly between two doctors who simultaneously pump a shot into both shoulders of each recruit. Several trainees pale and slump against a wall.

Next, gathered in one last assembly area with their new gear, they thread long, stiff laces through boot eyelets, their shaved heads bobbing up and down in the morning sunlight.

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